What Is a Travel Nurse? Job Description and Salary

What is a travel nurse? Learn about the benefits and salary for travel nurses and the steps to becoming a working travel nurse in the United States today.
A nurse crosses a busy intersection.

When healthcare organizations face staffing shortages, they call on travel nurses. What is a travel nurse? As skilled professionals, travel nurses take temporary nursing positions in high-need areas. They jump into hospitals, clinics, and other facilities, giving patients across the country quality care.

The COVID-19 pandemic created a nationwide staffing crisis and, as a result, a surge in demand for travel nurses. Health leaders attribute this change to two main factors: First, as CNN reports, staff nurses, demoralized and exhausted, have been quitting and retiring at a faster rate than facilities can hire new ones. Second, many nurses are leaving their stable jobs for well-paying temporary jobs, netting $5,000 or more per week working through travel-nurse agencies, according to AP News.

Students and professionals interested in this career path can benefit from exploring the roles and responsibilities of travel nurses, reading travel nursing tips, and learning about the travel nurse salary and job outlook. 

History of the Travel Nurse

The travel nurse industry emerged in the 1970s in response to high-census healthcare contexts. 

  • High census is when the patient population in a healthcare facility becomes higher than the current staff can appropriately care for. In effect, high census means that a facility is understaffed. 
  • Low census is when the patient population in a healthcare facility becomes too low for the facility to use its entire nursing staff. In essence, low census means a facility is overstaffed for a period of time. 

In the 1970s, persistent nursing shortages in warmer southern states, such as Florida, drew nurses from northern states over the winter. These nurses followed the seasonal influx of so-called snowbirds — people who move for part of the year to get away from harsh northern winters. 

At first, these nursing work arrangements were informal. Nurses would travel to meet demand but were hired as regular permanent employees who would leave when the season ended. Because these nurses had no special contract with their hospitals and clinics, these healthcare organizations also did not provide housing or extra wages. This worked well for facilities in warmer states that could not afford to hire so many staff members year-round. 

Today, professionals fit a similar travel nurse description. Travel nurses often work for healthcare staffing agencies that specialize in placing temporary contractors across the country. Agencies take a cut of what a hospital might pay a travel nurse, and in exchange, they advocate for secure housing, competitive travel nurse salaries, and all-expense-paid transportation to new assignments for their travel nurses.  

Culture Fit: What to Expect as a Travel Nurse

What does a travel nurse do? Travel nurses routinely jump into roles at understaffed healthcare settings. Facilities expect them to perform all the duties of a traditional nurse with little to no context for care. Because of this, travel nurses must become comfortable with working in extremely fast-paced, chaotic environments.

For example, a travel nurse may take an assignment at a severely understaffed neonatal intensive care unit. The nurses on staff may not have the time or bandwidth to explain all aspects of the hospital charting system or details about specific patients; travel nurses may need to pick these details up as they go.

Travel nurses sign a contract to fill a temporary position. This can last several days, weeks, or months — or longer. When contracts end, travel nurses either extend their stay at the same location or move on to a new destination and opportunity. The length of their contracts can vary, although most placements are between eight and 26 weeks. Some travel nurses find a temporary assignment they enjoy and work to secure a full-time position, but many continue to travel and keep flexible working hours. 

Working as a travel nurse has many perks. Here are some of the benefits of travel nursing:

  • Assistance in obtaining passports/work visas (if working internationally)
  • Bonuses
  • Choice of location
  • Competitive pay
  • Free housing
  • Higher-than-average pay for RNs
  • Medical, dental, and vision coverage
  • Retirement plans
  • Selection of hours/shifts worked
  • Travel reimbursement

Travel Nursing Tips and Personal Characteristics

Travel nurses need to cultivate the skills of learning new systems quickly, taking criticism in stride, and adapting easily to change.

Some personal characteristics that serve travel nurses on the job include:

  • Ability to learn quickly. Travel nurses all have experience working in a traditional nursing context, but they need to be able to draw upon their broad knowledge bases as they adapt to new healthcare facilities. Some healthcare settings have different standards of practice and different technologies to learn. Travel nurses need to adopt new practices and technologies quickly. 
  • Resilience to persevere in challenging contexts. The combination of moving to different states, being the “new nurse” constantly, and taking care of difficult patients comes with many challenges. Travel nurses need to be able to withstand these challenges. 
  • Flexibility. Travel nurses have the freedom to create their own schedules with the agencies they work for. For example, travel nurses might work for nine intense weeks on the other side of the country and then take a month off. 
  • Comfort with working in new environments. Travel nurses need to adapt to different organizations and care teams, often when those organizations and teams lack the adequate resources to run properly. 
  • A strong support network. Travel nurses may need to leave their families and friends for long periods of time to take temporary jobs. Having a supportive person or group of people who act as an emotional sounding board can be crucial for working long-term in the chaotic assignments of a travel nurse.

Navigating Crises as a Travel Nurse: Pandemic Pressure

The demand for travel nurses has accelerated over the course of the pandemic. Rising clinician burnout continues to be a challenging issue in the healthcare field.

A recent National Academy of Medicine report suggests that between 35% and 54% of U.S. nurses and physicians have symptoms of burnout due to pandemic pressures. These burnout symptoms include:

  • High emotional exhaustion
  • High depersonalization (expressed in cynicism about the healthcare system or healthcare in general)
  • A low sense of personal accomplishment from work

Even in more normal times, the American Nurses Association’s Healthy Nurse, Healthy Nation project found that at least 69% of U.S. nurses said they agreed or strongly agreed that they put their patients’ health and safety before their own.

Given the added stressors of the pandemic including abnormally high patient mortality rates, the lack of personal protective equipment, political decisiveness surrounding pandemic precautions, and polarized public responses to the vaccine rollout nurses have clearly borne the brunt of the pandemic chaos.

In the wake of so much nursing burnout, hospitals and health systems have relied on travel nurses to pick up the slack. As a result of severe staffing shortages, healthcare organizations are paying steep rates for much-needed staff.

How to Become a Travel Nurse

After determining what a travel nurse is and what a travel nurse does, current and future nurses may want to know how to become a travel nurse.

The steps involved in becoming a travel nurse include:

  • Earning an ASN or BSN degree
  • Passing the NCLEX to become a registered nurse (RN)
  • Gaining experience on the job
  • Getting licensed
  • Signing with a travel nurse staffing agency

Earn a Nursing Degree

Any nurse who has completed an associate or bachelor’s degree from an accredited nursing program is eligible to be a travel nurse. Several paths lead to meeting this education requirement:

  • Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) degree
  • Associate of Science in Nursing (ASN) degree for entry-level RNs
  • LPN to BSN bridge program for licensed practical or vocational nurses or licensed paramedics
  • LPN to ASN degree for licensed practical nurses

Pass the NCLEX to Become a Registered Nurse

After graduating with an associate or bachelor’s degree in nursing, the next step to becoming a travel nurse is passing the National Council Licensure Examination, also known as the NCLEX-RN exam.

Once they have passed the NCLEX exam and met the state board of nursing requirement, candidates will be eligible to become a registered nurse. From there, they need to start gaining enough experience in a nursing specialty to pursue opportunities as a travel nurse.

Gain Experience in a Specialty

Nursing professionals interested in travel nursing should look ahead and gain experience in the specialties they desire while still working full time as a regularly scheduled nurse so that they can work in specialized care environments as a travel nurse.

For example, a travel nurse with no experience working in a neonatal intensive care unit will not be competitive for NICU jobs. This is true for all specialties. 

Attain Licensure

To be a registered nurse, a professional must be licensed in the state where they work. The Nursing Licensure Compact (NLC) allows RNs to hold a single nursing license valid in several states.

The National Council of State Boards of Nursing keeps track of the states that have implemented the NLC. For professionals who live in a state that participates in the NLC, additional licensing may not be required to work as a travel nurse. However, travel nurses seeking to work outside of the NLC will need to get an additional license in the state(s) they seek to work in. 

Work With a Travel Nursing Agency

The last step to becoming a travel nurse involves signing with a travel nursing agency.

The benefits offered by each staffing agency will vary, along with the alliances they may have with specific hospital or healthcare networks, specific geographic areas, or even specific nursing specializations.

Travel Nurse Salary and Job Outlook

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects the nursing profession to grow at a rate of 16% between 2014 and 2024. Due to the current nursing shortage, the job outlook for travel nursing is even greater. The BLS predicts a 19% growth for travel nurse jobs by 2022.

Skilled RNs will have opportunities to fill open positions in travel nursing. The BLS predicts a 9% increase in the employment of RNs from 2020 to 2030 due to the aging general population of the United States and a large number of older nurses retiring in the workforce. According to the National Council of State Boards of Nursing (NCSBN), 55% of today’s nursing workforce is 50 years or older. That means there will likely be even greater need for travel nurses in the future as older nurses retire.

See the Country as a Skilled Travel Nurse

Traveling to provide patient services opens doors for travel nurses. They work for independent staffing companies that recruit RNs to fill positions throughout the United States and abroad. A lucrative career awaits nurses who are willing to take the leap, leave their traditional nursing jobs, and work in high-need areas across the country.

The ongoing shortage of nurses makes it challenging for hospitals and clinics to maintain their staffing needs. Travel nurses can help with persistent staffing issues, and they can also fill in temporary gaps when nurses go on leave. Travel nurses don’t always need to work in different states; some serve at local understaffed hospitals.

For current and aspiring nurses with a desire for new experiences, an interest in meeting new people and visiting new areas, and a drive to develop an understanding of healthcare in other communities, becoming a travel nurse can be an exciting career move.

Learn more about opportunities for nursing pre-professionals with St. Catherine University’s accredited nursing degree program. Through comprehensive nursing instruction, St. Kate’s equips students with the technical skills to succeed on the job. 

American Traveler, “Travel Nurse Salary”
AP News, “US Hospitals Hit With Nurse Staffing Crisis Amid COVID”
CNN, “Traumatized and Tired, Nurses Are Quitting Due to the Pandemic”
Forbes, “What It's Like to Be a Travel Nurse During a Pandemic”
Professional Association for Nurse Travelers, “History”
Travel Nurse Across America, “New Grad Nursing & How to Start Travel Nursing”
Travel Nurse Across America, Travel Nursing Basics: Agencies, Requirements & More”
TravelNursing.com, “Which Travel Nursing Specialties Are in Demand?”
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Employment and Wages, May 2020 - Registered Nurses
The Wall Street Journal, “High Pay for Covid-19 Nurses Leads to Shortages at Some Hospitals”